OKLAHOMA CITY – When the Oklahoma City Thunder gathered to leave on their charter flight to San Antonio on the eve of the Western Conference finals, Serge Ibaka couldn't climb to his feet and walk. Swelling on his left calf made it still difficult for an MRI to see the severity of his sprain, but the doctors hadn't deviated on the diagnosis.
Done for the Spurs, done for the season. Across the past seven years, there had been five of these injuries in the NBA, and no one had come back to play inside of a month. The air had come out of the Thunder's championship chase, and the coaches and players had been told implicitly: Move on, men.
"I'm going to play," Ibaka told front-office executives Sam Presti and Troy Weaver.
"I'm going to play," he told his Thunder teammates.
All his life, Ibaka has seen the possibilities where everyone else saw peril. He comes out of the war-torn Congo, one of 18 children raised amid poverty and warring factions. His mother died, his father tried to help the family flee from the country's civil war – only to become taken as a political prisoner.
Through it all, in good times and heartache, Ibaka was raised to be there for his family. When times were desperate, Ibaka was counted upon. This never left Ibaka, and this was his essence on Sunday night upon resurrecting the Thunder's season in the West finals.
Beyond the pain and pressure, Ibaka delivered a most inspiring performance in a 106-97 victory over the Spurs. He had his Willis Reed moment – hitting two jumpers to start Game 3, and then a third and a fourth – and perhaps the Spurs never stood a chance. Ibaka was a spirit, a movement, a gathering storm in the distance that burst onto the Spurs.
Suddenly, the rim was protected. The Spurs no longer drifted to the basket uninhibited, no longer scored easy baskets. Sometimes, people still ask: Why didn't they just keep James Harden and let Ibaka go? Well, everyone found out over the three games of these Western Conference finals. Ibaka changes everything for the Thunder.
If nothing else, Ibaka is so fiercely loyal. "The best teammate I've ever played with is Kevin Garnett, but Serge is right there behind K.G., No. 2," Kendrick Perkins told Yahoo Sports.
After suffering the calf injury two weeks ago, Ibaka was disconsolate. He didn't see it coming. No one did. They wouldn't leave it to Ibaka's toughness and tenacity. The medical staff set incremental benchmarks for him to reach. As one source said, "This wasn't a case of, 'How do you feel?' "
Once the Thunder arrived back into Oklahoma City early Thursday, something surprising had happened: The swelling had subsided some 50 percent. The blood was gone, and suddenly the MRI gave a clearer indication this wasn't a four-to-six-week calf sprain, but a milder prognosis.
Now, Ibaka was walking. Now, he was talking bolder. Game 3, he told everyone. He was walking, and the Thunder had been running out of time. He was pushing Thunder officials to let him get onto the court and start shooting. Presti understood he had to amend the rigid public stance that Ibaka held no hope of returning.
Once the story had been reported and the Thunder released a news statement, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford happened to be watching a predraft workout of prospects in the bleachers of Santa Monica Catholic High School when his cell phone rang. Presti was on the line, Buford's protégé wanting to deliver a head's up on the news.
Presti wanted Buford to believe he hadn't tried to pull a fast one on the Spurs, but Presti also understood he would've created a distraction for calling Ibaka's injury indefinite, because his coaches and players would've faced questions of his return every day. Presti was damned for declaring him out for the season, only for the season to reduce itself to two missed games.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich never stopped insisting Ibaka would return, his reasoning resonating with the belief the more ordinary an Ibaka comeback seemed, the less of an inspiration to the Thunder.
Once Ibaka ran onto the floor on Sunday, the arena was electric. For one night anyway, resistance was futile. Ibaka blocked a shot in the third quarter and suddenly started to favor a leg, to limp. As it turned out, it wasn't the calf – but a cramp.
As the Thunder's culture goes, Ibaka has been the ultimate personification. When the Thunder drafted him with the 24th pick in 2008, he startled everyone when he told Oklahoma City he needed another year in Spain. When he came, he wanted to be prepared for the NBA. When he did, it didn't take long for him to make his move. He earned a four-year, $48 million contract extension two years ago, but Perkins still teases him for the way he hordes those brand new basketball sneakers, how he wears them for weeks and weeks without opening up a new box of them.
Around 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Serge Ibaka had passed his final tests, been cleared to play Game 3, and there was no stopping him now. He reached into the air and blocked shots and grabbed rebounds and made life hell for the Spurs again. Finally, Oklahoma City is back together and making its run, finally Serge Ibaka has made everyone understand he is perhaps among the most indispensable of these Oklahoma City Thunder.